Mormon Familial Amoralism?

In 1958 a political scientist published a book on the culture of Southern Italy that may have something to say about one of the potential pit falls of Mormonism. The political scientist — Edward Banfield — was interested in a fairly simple question: Why does Northern Italy work and Southern Italy not? If you go to Milan, in the north, you will find a bustling, functional, modern city with basically honest government and commerce. If you go to Naples or Palermo, in the south, you will find that government and commerce are riddled with corruption and mafiasos. What gives?

Banfield’s approach was to simply live in a small southern Italian town for a while and observe how people interacted with one another. He described what he found as “familial amoralism.” This is the socio-ethical system on display in the Godfather movies. It involves an intense commitment and loyalty to family and other insiders and an essential indifference to the plight of outsiders. In other words, it takes an essentially amoral attitude toward those not in the family. The results, according to Banfield, were catastrophic for southern Italian society. There was a breakdown of trust between strangers and even between unrelated neighbors, and without this trust social cooperation in either commerce or government became impossible. Not surprisingly, Robert Putnam — Harvard’s contemporary guru of “social capital” — was one of Banfield’s graduate students. (As was BYU professor Noel Reynolds, incidentally.)

I am sympathetic to the idea of Mormon tribal identity. To be sure, it is a tribe that is decisively defined by a covenantal relationship with God, but the same was true of Israel’s children. Familial amoralism is the great danger that tribes can succumb to. In his book Bowling Alone Putnam argues that there are good forms of social interaction and bad forms of social interaction. The good forms create “social capital,” ie widespread mutual trust between members of society. The bad forms create “familial amoralism” (although I don’t think Putnam uses Banfield’s rather awkward term.) It is interesting to ask which category Mormonism falls into.

The truth, of course, is that Mormonism as a set of social interactions is very, very complicated. It certainly has the ability to create a great deal of mutual trust between members of the Church. On the other hand, the very fact that Mormonism necessarily freights the divide between member and non-member with so much significance makes it difficult for the Church to be a generator of social capital when it finds itself embedded within a pluralistic community rather than acting as the context in which community occurs. At its worst, this has produced at least one horrible instance of familial amoralism — the Mountain Meadows Massacre (although obviously this is a very complicated case) — and many lesser instances, as any number of Gentile kids growing up in Utah can attest to. It seems that associations with much weaker ties and claims on their members — things like soccer clubs, the PTA, or swimming leagues — do a better job of generating social capital. In this sense, whatever the Church’s other virtues (and obviously I think that they are many) it doesn’t seem to be well suited to be an agent for the maintenance of civic life.

Or so my thinking goes at present. Interestingly, Banfield also did a study of another small southern town. This one was located, however, in the remote American west and is called St. George. The manuscript produced by this study (which lasted, I believe, one or two years) was never published. I believe that it now resides in the special collections at BYU. I would be curious to read some day what Banfield thought of the Mormon farmers he lived amongst.

34 comments for “Mormon Familial Amoralism?

  1. annon
    June 26, 2006 at 1:06 am

    Familial amoralism – I like the term! New concept for me – interesting, esp in the context of group think.

    “It certainly has the ability to create a great deal of mutual trust between members of the Church. ” This trust is can be misplaced. A family member was burned by a ward member he employed to do some remodeling. Did not end well. Same family member recently employed another family member to finish the botched job – by all accounts, it is, sadly, not going well. Some ties are stronger than self-interested economic, rationale thinking, I guess.

  2. June 26, 2006 at 1:09 am

    My stepfather had roots in southern Italy. It was a little disconcerting to the rest of our family to watch his behavior regarding nonfamily. It was okay to rip them off, by his lights.

    I would look first to what the church teaches about the treatment of outsiders, which is the same neighborliness Christ taught through his good Samaritan story. To the extent church members don’t live up to that, I would tend to attribute it to human nature–the natural man’s tendency to take care of kin and to distrust outsiders–rather than to the church. I think all communities define themselves and the defnitions create outsiders. An important question is what attitude is taken toward outsiders. The Mormon attitutude–that all outsiders are potential insiders–would seem to work against too much familial amoralism.

    I worry a little about the decline of social capital within the church. Putnam’s main point is that social capital has declined steeply in American society since the 1960s, and I don’t think American Mormons have been exempt from that. Where I live, informal socialization among members–as opposed to perfunctory attendence at various functions–seems to have declined.

    Francis Fukuyama’s book Trust: The Social Virtues and the Creation of Prosperity contrasts “high trust” societies with low trust societies, paying most attention to their relative prosperity and how this relates to the transaction costs associated with distrustfulness. He finds the U.S., Germany, and Japan to be “high trust” societies and Italy, France, and Korea to be “low trust societies. By his standards, Mormonism would create a very high trust society. Mormons readily organize on a large scale–and not just with church members.

    It would be interesting to see what Banfield found about St. George. I’ve never lived in a place where Mormons were anything near the dominant culture.

  3. Mark Butler
    June 26, 2006 at 1:33 am

    I was reflecting this afternoon that the Muslim preference to have daughters marry close relations (like first cousins) contributes to the bad kind of tribalism – family vs. family. Perhaps Southern Italy has the same problem.

    Where in Europe proper, the traditional ideal is to marry into other families to create alliances, whether within a town, a country, or between nations. That type of matchmaking is highly conducive to social stability. What is the real basis of the Sunni vs. Shiite conflict anyway? Isn’t it basically little more than a centuries old family feud?

    So perhaps in Mormonism (though I don’t think we have a problem) we should prefer that people marry people from a different state, to create natural social alliances and fellow feeling. e.g. no more of this crazy Utah Mormon vs. non-Utah Mormon thing.

  4. June 26, 2006 at 1:46 am

    Nice comments, Nate. I think the term is often rendered “amoral familism.” At BYU, I read “Christ Stopped At Eboli,” a narrative treatment of the same phenomenon. But I think He made it to St. George.

  5. June 26, 2006 at 1:57 am

    I think hope lies in the spread of a story–or a set of ideas or memes–rather than in a biological strategy. Wasn’t one of Christ’s innovations to spread a neighborly ethic beyond the family of Jews through the telling of a story in which all of us can be kin?

    Still, we note differences. My sister married a Utah Mormon and moved to Bountiful, so I do have kin within the fold, but it’s still strange to visit there. The strangeness though may have less to do with the faith than with failures to adhere to the faith. . .It’s still a Mormon thing though not I think a church thing. For me, it’s largely a rural/urban difference. I’m a hick.

  6. Mark Butler
    June 26, 2006 at 2:04 am

    I don’t mean biology. I refer to the negative consequences of purposely maintaining tribal boundaries by marriage instead of the opposite regime of building alliances between tribes, clans, familes, locales, etc. by marriage. How can clans that constantly intermarry have such a low regard for each other? Perhaps someone can tell us about marriage practices in Southern Italy – I imagine the difference is telling.

  7. elizabeth
    June 26, 2006 at 4:51 am

    I like the post you are so right to compair them
    hey we even have secret handshakes to make sure you are in or out the TBM world.

    Just wish you had a copy of that study would love to read it.

    Elizabeth ( from HOlland)

  8. Adam Greenwood
    June 26, 2006 at 6:39 am

    I think you’re cutting a lot of corners, Nate O.

    I’ll grant that in 1958 southern Italians practiced familial amoralism. But it seems a big stretch to me to say that (1) in this context, we can think of the Church as a family and (2) because we are intensely devoted to that family, we must have an amoral attitude to outsiders.

    (1) we talk about the church as the family, and in some real ways we treat each other as if it were, but it isn’t, biologically, a family and mostly we’re pretending. No family as big as the Church is, or as dominant, could really function the way families did in southern Italy. And in that kind of culture, an enormous extended family would be full of squabbling sub-families, who would tend to view members of other sub-families amorally, except where true outsiders were concerned. But this is not what you see in the Church.

    (2) It does not follow that intense devotion to a group means an amoral attitude to outsiders. Intense devotion is likely to lead to indifference to outsiders, but this is very different from amoralism. It can even lead to antipathies of various kinds, but this is also very different from doing whatever one wishes to outsiders as long as it suits one’s purposes. The kinds of anecdotal evidence you cite aren’t really evidence of amoralism per se, with the possible exception of the Mountain Meadows Massacre, so I would really like to see something more empirical. My actual experience with Mormons is that they tend to be consumed with church to the neglecting of their neighbors and civic affairs, but that they don’t actually mistrust their neighbor or reject his humanity.

  9. elizabeth
    June 26, 2006 at 9:29 am


    At the moment I am inactive in the lds church.
    Do people come by and visit? NO
    do people come and help? NO

    Can I talk religion with active lds members? No

    I am a danger to most active lds because I do make them think about things. my lady friend says I am devoted to the prophet, what he sais I will do.
    That does sound a little bit like a godfather and a folower kind of thing.

    We know that if we express our own opions and the “godfather” doesn’t like it we will be treanthend by either taking away our temple recommand or our membership of the church.
    Or you lose your job ,like what happened with Jeff Nielsen.

    So you are a part of a group that have secrets and want you to blindly follow their leader.
    If not you are out
    or loose your recomand or your membership.

    I like these kind of parables.

    Elizabeth ( from Holland)

  10. June 26, 2006 at 10:49 am

    I’ll grant that in 1958 southern Italians practiced familial amoralism.

    Having lived in Southern Italy, I’m not so sure that I’ll grant that. At least, it seems like a gross over-simplification of things…

    It strikes me as the same thing as saying all people who live in Utah Valley vote Republican and believe that the world was created in 7 24 hour periods.

    I will tell you this: The people I knew and know in Southern Italy pride themselves (and in my estimation somewhat justifiably so) in being more warm and open and welcoming and inviting than the Northern Italians. They view the dog-eat-dog world of Milan and other industrial cities as being de-humanizing.

    I’m not trying to say that Southern Italy doesn’t have it’s own problems and that I didn’t hear lapsed LDS members there refer to the church as “Our Church” in a very Godfather-esque style, it’s just to say that I think saying all of southern Italy lives in a familial amorlastic world to be… an oversimplification, as I already said. :)

  11. Nathan Oman
    June 26, 2006 at 11:28 am

    “I think you’re cutting a lot of corners, Nate O.”

    Of course I am! It is a blog post!

    I don’t think that by and large Mormons treat outsiders in an amoral way, but I do think that it is a danger. For example, I grew in suburban SLC. Oddly, most of my closest friends in high school were non-Mormons. I know that they affirmatively felt not only ignored by many LDS kids, but mistreated ostracized, etc. I would be the first to say that any comparison of President Hinckley the Godfather is ridiculous, but I do think that as much as I love Mormon tribalism it is not without its dangers.

  12. MikeInWeHo
    June 26, 2006 at 1:53 pm

    re: 8 I agree with your last sentence completely, Adam. But Elizabeth makes a good point too. It’s difficult to be inactive (and doubtful, and gay, and/or whatever) and maintain anything approaching a close relationship with active members. Sometimes it happens, but I do think that Mormons generally practice a form of shunning (see also the thread about the Amish, who are big shunners themselves). Maybe that’s necessary to maintain a such a distinctive and “righteous” community, whether it’s Mormon, Amish, etc.

  13. June 26, 2006 at 2:06 pm

    I don’t think it’s a Mormon thing. I think it’s a universal reality.

    The degree of intimacy that is possible with anyone is related to how similar we are on the inside. One of the nice things about being steeped in the same canon is that it creates an inner similarity among folks that greatly facilitates sharing and warmth. It speeds up the process of casing that new acquaintances normally go through. But if you disapprove of my deepest values, you shouldn’t really expect that I will be able to maintain a “close relationship” with you, as much as I might want that.

  14. June 26, 2006 at 4:56 pm

    Elizabeth: So you are a part of a group that have secrets and want you to blindly follow their leader. If not you are out or loose your recomand or your membership

    This is at least as gross an oversimplification of the reality as is Banfield’s/Nate’s characterization of mid-20th-century southern Italy.

    I hope my comment doesn’t derail the discussion of Nate’s comparison. I’m not interested in having a fight with Elizabeth about the temple or following the counsel of the Prophet (though, needless to say, I think she’s quite wrong on both counts). I hope no one else is interested in such a fight either. However, I didn’t feel like I should just let her remark stand unchallenged.

    Elizabeth is welcome to her opinion (an opinion that the existence of this blog belies). But she’s not welcome to it without disagreement from those of us who are committed to the Church.

  15. MikeInWeHo
    June 26, 2006 at 4:57 pm

    I dunno. Some of my closest relationships are with people who profoundly disagree with (some of) my core values, politics, nutty Mormon-ish religious views, etc. So I’m not convinced it’s “universal.”

  16. Mark Pickering
    June 26, 2006 at 6:10 pm

    It’s worth noting that everybody applied different moral standards to “family” or tribal members than to outsiders or foreigners before Christianity. See Aristotle’s writings, where obligations to Greeks are different than those to barbarians. Or see the law of Moses, where it’s one thing to wrong an Israelite and another to wrong a Gentile. Or see the Muslims, who, upon conquering an area, put the pagans to the sword and levied an extra tax on Jews and Christians who did not convert.

  17. Tatiana
    June 26, 2006 at 7:07 pm

    Many of my closest friends have totally different worldviews than I as well. Is that not common? They are atheists, Catholics, agnostics, and undecided. All of them are intellectuals in one way or another (a diverse group of intellectual interests), so I suppose that was how the original bond developed. And we all share a commitment to the word of wisdom, though they don’t call it that. So that was another bond. Now, though, we stay close simply because we love each other.

    I guess I’m not part of the Mormon Tribe either, really, since I’m a convert. Maybe that’s the difference.

  18. Adam Greenwood
    June 26, 2006 at 7:21 pm

    “I do think that as much as I love Mormon tribalism it is not without its dangers.”

    Right.. But your original point was that Mormonism could not maintain a civic culture, which I believe you have not adequately demonstrated.

  19. costanza
    June 26, 2006 at 8:03 pm

    “At the moment I am inactive in the lds church.
    Do people come by and visit? NO
    do people come and help? NO”

    Elisabeth, do you visit them? Do you stop over and help them? If not, then you too demonstrate and equal stance vis-a-vis “outsiders” as those you are lambasting.

  20. Ben H
    June 26, 2006 at 8:36 pm

    Hey guys, I think you could be a bit less defensive in the way you respond to Elizabeth. She isn’t exactly the first person to think the thoughts you are resisting.

    Elizabeth, I think you may have misread some of the ward members’ responses to you, though. If they didn’t know what to say to you when you expressed your thoughts about the church, it may not have been fear as much as just plain not knowing what to say. From what you have said here about the church, it doesn’t sound like you are even talking about the same institution that I know. So I wouldn’t know where to begin. If someone said to you, “If the moon is made of green cheese, doesn’t that sound like a great solution to world hunger?” what would you say in response? You might agree that we should try to fight world hunger, but . . .

  21. Susan S.
    June 26, 2006 at 10:59 pm

    You are definitly on to something here, Nate my boy. Just trace the term “enemies” through early Mormon manuscripts. So much of the time the enemies are what Elaine Pagel in her book on Satan terms “intimate enemies”–those who betray the family. Satan after all is an intimate enemy–a brother gone bad. Look at the prologue to the Book of Moses. Hey I’m really the brother who should get top billing. Or the early JST–who murders whom and why. Or the book of Mormon. We have a rich, intense set of stories about families gone awry. . . . .

  22. June 27, 2006 at 5:32 am

    I’m quite sure that Nate can speak for himself, but I think his point wasn’t that Mormonism and civic life are incompatible, but that being Mormon might not do much to further the cause due to the tribalism that exists.

    For what it’s worth, Robert Putnam is an interesting guy. His big break was “Making Democracy Work”, which makes a lot of his “Bowling Alone” arguments twenty years ahead of time. That said, one can raise significant questions about the causal model that he advocated within that book, which, of course, used the difference between northern and southern Italy as a case study for his larger investigation into the sources of effective democracy. Putnam seems to see the issue more institutionally than does Banfield, which is probably just a difference in methodology and perception at the time. The reason I mention this at all is that Putnam’s work seems to have created the conclusion that social institutions=doubleplusgood (although that’s not really his argument), even though the cultural stuff at the root of Banfield’s argument really does seem to be the make or break element in whether those social institutions create any spillover effects that increase or improve civic life. So, the relevant question isn’t “do you bowl with others?”, but “does your bowling make you more disposed to other civic connections?”.

  23. D-Train
    June 27, 2006 at 5:33 am

    I should have mentioned that Putnam has had about a billion “big breaks”. This was just his biggest on this topic….

  24. elizabeth
    June 27, 2006 at 3:48 pm

    Ben H said:
    If someone said to you, “If the moon is made of green cheese

    Elizabeth sais
    Hey Ben I am from Holland Europe we are nicknamed
    Cheeseheads here in Europe becauze we love cheese so much

    So I do not know wath I will do if the moon was made of cheese.

    Elizabeth ( from Holland)

  25. elizabeth
    June 27, 2006 at 4:04 pm

    Ok lett me first say I AM NOT HERE TO PICK A FIGTH

    I am here to express my opnion just like you all. The point is that I have other experiences .
    And yes the members in my local ward do not understand me and that is part due to myself .
    I lived almost five years in the backlands of Croatia and was not able to visit the church much.
    I needed to learn to live without the sacrament, without my brothers and sisters, without the temple. I was my own visitteacher, my hometeache my reliefsociety president and my own sundayschool teacher. I was my sons primary teacher.
    I think in that period of time I grew alot but I am not able to at this point to fitt in the live of going to church be active with all kinds of things etc.

    Due to my burnout depression and having to raise a special needs child by myself I must confess that I cannot do and visit the people of my ward as much as I would like to.
    But if you want I can give you email aderesses of people of my ward that I do try to reach trough the phone, email and cards.
    I live in a innercity area of my city and I have lot of moslim sisters in my live at the moment, and I try to homevisit them and help them out when I can.

    The point I was trying to make is that humans have a socialocigal great need to be part of a group.
    Everybody that is in , is in
    Everybody that is out, is out

    Just as simple as that.

    There is also a differance to approach here in the missionfield or in ( what I call ) Mormondisney lala land.
    I have lived in Salt Lake so I know the differance .

    Maybe this will help you understand me better.

    Am I saying that the prophet is a Godfather , don´t think so but my mind is one that usses methaphores and parables to help people to understand things better.

    So don´t gett your hair raised up ( like we say over here) I am not anti church here.
    But I do know that if you like Jeff Nielsen want to expres your opinion , or raise questions this will not be appreciated.
    You all know that some other scholars where exced for expression their own opnion.
    Oh yeah I know you can have a oppion but you are not allowed to express it outside the group.

    Elizabeth ( from Holland)

  26. June 27, 2006 at 7:10 pm

    Familial amoralism is the great danger that tribes can succumb to.

    Nicely said. Not that Utah has given in, but that this is a risk, especially as money, prestige and large family organizations grow. We do have the risk of having tribes that hire their own over strangers, give their own benefits and do all the things that break down egalitarian ideals in favor of family ties.

    Due to my burnout depression and having to raise a special needs child by myself I must confess that I cannot do and visit the people of my ward as much as I would like to. That must have been hard.

    In the states it is hard to think of Holland having places that really out of the way. I think of visiting teaching routes my wife had that took 120 mile trips to complete a day’s worth of visits (with more to come) and it is hard to think in smaller terms some times, but that doesn’t make them less real.

    This was a well done post Nate.

  27. June 27, 2006 at 8:18 pm

    Having known northern and southern Italians, I think the difference might be more in attitude towards others’ success–the north accepts it, the south doesn’t as much–more like Mexicans. Good, warm, nice–but when one succeeds and starts pulling away, the others pull him back down.

  28. Chris Kimball
    June 27, 2006 at 9:28 pm

    For what it’s worth, I have read Banfield’s manuscript (a colleague at Boston University had a copy; I incorrectly thought it had been published). I believe he was actually in Gunlock, Utah. As I remember, he chose a place that was a similar distance from a larger city (St. George) and similarly poor in terms of natural resources — a hard place to grow things — with a similar size population, compared to the Southern Italian village. Gunlock at the time would have been virtually 100% Mormon and very tight-knit (may still be, for all I know). Banfield found a very different place than Southern Italy. He reported a lot of group activity (dances as well as economic activity). I remember one contrast, where the Southern Italian community saw families sending a cart to town to trade, with the result that some few did OK but those with the wrong mix of children, ages and health, failed. In the Mormon community the cart going into town would include a larger group of people, well beyond the family, and including some who could not have managed on their own. He observed that Gunlock was much more prosperous and people lived better than in the Southern Italian village. Banfield concluded that it was a result of the social interaction that extended beyond the family. He presented this as something of a controlled study, where he had intentionally chosen two locations that were similar in external factors, and differed only by the social interaction.

  29. Kimball L. Hunt
    June 27, 2006 at 11:33 pm

    Hm: So it’s da ghetto versus the shtetl? lol.

    It’s got to do with us versus them and how this is determined — to size up folks and see if they don’t deviate too much from our norms so we won’t shun ’em: YOU know, be interested in certain kinds of things — maybe wanna engage in certain kinds of intellectualization for intellectuals or certain kinds of reasonings, I suppose, or whatnot for academicians; holding to certain norms of morality for the particularly religious; being wordly enough not to be found to be a clueless chump in our dog-eat-dog world generally.

  30. heironymus potter
    June 28, 2006 at 12:43 am

    Do you think this is also similar to a sort of ‘Good ol’ Boys’ network? I ask because I have been down and out in SLC. With no ‘Good ol’ Boys’ of my own to hook up with, I found the jobless situation in SLC to be very difficult. Numerous times I found myself hanging around outside Temple Square waiting for the gates to open so I could use the restrooms to clean up a bit and head out for the day to hunt up some work. There would be quite a few street folks mulling around out there waiting for the gates to open. The temple square grounds/security people were pretty conflicted about what to do. They didn’t want to let us in, but knew it would not be kind to keep us out…. I won’t tell you what happened when they opened the gates…. that’s a different thread.
    I tried to find jobs at larger institutions, like hospitals, hotels, the U of U, figuring that I had a better chance at a place with a larger job pool. The most puzzling and disturbing part of my whole jobless in SLC experience, was the way that people I interviewed with would either tell me on the spot or during a follow-up call on my part, how they were going to give the job to so and so’s son or daughter because they had served together years before in the Elders Quorum, or the interview was just a formality that the institution required, because, a former mission companion had a son who was considering going into medical school and needed a job for the summer, so understandably….. You get the picture. I applaud the honesty, but that was the first time I had ever been exposed to nepotism and cronyism. Perhaps, this is not exactly what your post is postulating, but my take is that familial amoralism exists even member to member. As I said in the beginning my experience was perhaps more of a ‘Good ol’ Boys’ type of situation.
    Now years later I wonder what I would do in a similar situation…. Would I give a menial job to a friend or former ward member’s kid over some fool who was waiting around Temple Square for the gates to open in the morning? In an economy of scarcity, who gets the crumbs?
    So here I sit many years later, bathed in the light of cathode tube rays of a computer monitor, wondering what happened to some of the poor fools, who like me found themselves literally and metaphorically “outside the gates” of Mormon SLC………

  31. elizabeth
    June 28, 2006 at 4:00 am

    I used to go to ward here in Rotterdam that had a family with four sons active and they where kind of a tribe on there own in the ward.
    They all wanted the best “job” in church and if you weren’t a part of their tribe then you were out.
    They hate black people who aren’t members of the lds church.
    And some of the boys are police officers and one was such a scriptorian and they he did not see that his marriage was falling appart etc.

    Anyway just of them that they are a group with in a group

    Elizabeth ( from Holland)

  32. heironymus potter
    June 28, 2006 at 7:22 am

    Tried posting last night. Nothing appeared.

  33. Adam Greenwood
    June 28, 2006 at 8:44 am

    Perhaps, H. Potter, they were trying to give you a reason for not hiring you that didn’t hurt your feelings. But most likely you are right. Large institutions like that seem particularly prone to cronyism, perhaps because they don’t have competitive pressures.

  34. heironymus potter
    June 28, 2006 at 10:55 am

    #33. Perhaps. But why pitch the reason to me like that? I’m not bitter about it or anything. Most institutions have policies against cronyism. It was what it was. Since the original post was sort of about tribalism I am postulating that there are even tribal alliances within larger tribes. I am also wondering if commentors think that cronysim is a form of familial amoralism. I just sort of got the sense of “so you’re from … well, that’s the way things are done here”, not explicitly, and if it happened once or twice I would call it happenstance, but it occurred multiple times. I did however feel like I was ‘outside the gates, looking in’, literally and figuratively.

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